When 29 March to 12 May 1780
Strength British – 12,847
Americans – 6,577
After the capture of Savannah, a combined French and American force tried to recapture the city in 1779 but ultimately failed. The British then plotted to capture the port city of Charles Town in South Carolina. The British intended to use the city as a base for conducting operations throughout the Carolinas to take control of the colonies from the Patriots and restore government loyal to Britain. They also hoped that significant numbers of Loyalists would join the army leading to an invasion of Virginia from the south.
The Americans intended to defend Charles Town and prevent its capture by the British. Their defensive plan included; flooding a ditch across the Neck leading into Charles Town, building abatis and breastworks on the main road across the Neck, constructing redoubts facing out to sea and along the banks of the Ashley and Cooper Rivers, and repairing and rearming several forts around the city. Governor John Rutledge requisitioned over 600 slaves from nearby plantations to help build these defenses. Finally, the number of Continental army soldiers and militiamen in the city was increased and a fleet of nine ships was positioned within Charles Town Harbor.
On 29 March, British troops crossed the Ashley River and began their siege of Charles Town. On 13 April, the British began bombarding the city which began several fires. Major General Sir Henry Clinton called on his American counterpart, Major General Benjamin Lincoln, to surrender. Lincoln knew his situation was desperate but refused and decided to delay evacuating his army across the Cooper River. In the meantime, a combined British force led by Colonel Banastre Tarleton advanced south along the Cooper and halted six miles outside the city. This prevented American troops from escaping across the river. By 19 April, the British had advanced to within 250 yards of the American line on the Neck.
After another council of war on 21 April, Lincoln proposed surrendering to the British with full honors of war which would have allowed the Americans to leave the city with their flags flying, drums beating, and bayonets fixed but Clinton rejected this proposal. On 8 May, British troops were close enough to the American line on the Neck that they were able to drain the flooded ditch. However, before committing to an all-out-assault, General Clinton called on the Americans to surrender. Once again, Lincoln asked to surrender with the honors of war, but this was, once more, refused by Clinton.
Following a night of heavy bombardment by British guns, Brigadier General Christopher Gadsden begged Lincoln to surrender to save the city from complete destruction. Lincoln finally accepted Clinton’s terms and on 12 May, American soldiers marched out of the city, piled their arms by the town’s Citadel, and became prisoners-of-war. The militia followed them but were permitted to go home after laying down their guns and promising not to fight anymore.
The surrender at Charleston was the largest single loss of American soldiers until the Civil War. The British captured 5,916 muskets, 391 cannons, 10,000lbs of gunpowder, 33,000 ammunition cartridges, and 8,000 cannon balls. More importantly they captured the best harbor in the South.
On 5 June, Clinton returned to New York City, believing he was needed there in case French and American forces tried to retake the city. He left command of the southern campaign to his second-in-command, General Charles Lord Cornwallis.
British – 76 killed / 189 wounded
Americans – 89 killed / 138 wounded / 5,266 captured
The Siege of Charleston by Alonzo Chappel, c.1862